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Scientists Under Scrutiny in Newly Revealed Interior Department Emails

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This image of the shrinking perimeter of Sperry Glacier in Glacier National Park accompanied a press release that linked the shrinking of Montana's glaciers to climate change. USGS

On March 7, POLITICO published an in-depth look at how the climate skepticism of Trump appointees might impact their decision making.

That evening, The Washington Post reported on an Interior Department email thread released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the administration's aversion to accurate climate science.


In the emails, published by The Post, Douglas Domenech, the Department of the Interior's assistant secretary for insular areas and one of the appointees featured in the POLITICO report, complained about the language in a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) press release about shrinking glaciers in Montana.

The release, summarizing research the USGS had conducted with Portland State University, began with the sentence,"The warming climate has dramatically reduced the size of 39 glaciers in Montana since 1966, some by as much as 85 percent."

"This is a perfect example of them going outside their wheelhouse," Domenech complained in an email to three colleagues dated May 10, 2017.

"They probably are relying on the percentages but the most basic point is we need to watch for inflammatory adverbs and adjectives in their press releases," replied current Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Cameron, who was then in charge of reviewing USGS releases.

The exchange reveals an intense level of scrutiny directed at the language scientists use to report their findings coming from people with a minimal understanding of the purpose of scientific research.

Portland State University geology professor and study co-author Andrew Fountain responded to Domenech's complaints. "This is what we do. It's not just that we look at glaciers, see they're retreating and shrug our shoulders," he told The Post. "We try to figure out what's going on."

While Trump's Department of Interior does require all press releases to pass a "policy review" before publication, this particular email exchange did not stop the USGS from posting the objectionable language on their website less than an hour later, where you can still read it.

But the reason the emails were obtained in the first place suggests that attitudes like Domenech's are having a stifling impact on scientific research at the Interior Department.

Joel Clement, a former Interior Department scientist who studied the impact of climate change on Alaskan Native communities before being suspiciously reassigned to accounting and later resigning, filed the FOIA request with Bureau of Land Management official Matthew Allen. The pair seek to determine if their involuntary reassignments were related to their climate work.

According to the Post, Interior Department officials did remove a line about climate change from a press release about a USGS study published in Scientific Reports. They also ordered National Park Service employees not to post on social media about a visit Mark Zuckerberg made to Glacier National Park after reading about its disappearing glaciers in the USGS study.

The Interior Department isn't the only department full of Trump appointees hostile to climate science. The administration set the tone minutes after Trump's inauguration by removing references to climate change from the White House website, among other alterations. And in January, the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative published a report detailing how the Trump administration has censored climate change information on government websites. "Language about climate change has been systematically changed across multiple agencies and program websites," the report found.

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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